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Na’Ty Rodgers had never been to the state of Florida before.

After recently being selected to the Under Armour All-America High School Football Game and receiving his game jersey as part of the American Family Insurance Selection Tour, the 6-foot-4, 285-pound McDonough offensive tackle experienced firsthand of what the Sunshine State was.

Last Friday evening, Rodgers, ranked 25th nationally at his position among the top 100 offensive tackles by ESPN, played in the sixth annual Under Armour game, nationally televised on ESPN at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., home of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Playing in such a nationally televised all-star game was rare territory for the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference, despite the immense talent that the conference has on a yearly basis.

The last time a McDonough player played in this caliber of a game occurred in January 2006 when another highly touted senior in A.J. Wallace played cornerback in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.

“It was exciting to be a part of that environment, McDonough head coach Luke Ethington said when Rodgers was recently selected to play in the big game. “Under Armour did everything first class. Plus, some of the best talent in the nation gathered in Orlando and Maurice J. McDonough High School was there to represent the Southern Maryland area. He has handled the national stage with a lot of insight and maturity.”

Rodgers played for Team Nitro, which faced off versus Team Highlight, who won the contest 16-3 in a game that featured the top ranked high school players in the country.

“It was my first time ever in Florida, and to play on national television was a great experience,” said Rodgers a two-time All-SMAC and All-County selection. “To play in front of a huge crowd and face top-notch competition was a blessing.”

Rodgers’ experience in Florida leading up to the game started with a busy practice schedule. The Rams senior competed against the nation’s top three defensive ends and five of the 10 best ends while he was down there.

The moment on the national stage was special after a decorated high school career that came to a close in early November in the Class 2A South Region playoffs for McDonough.

While he had success individually on the field, at recruiting camps and on film, Rodgers tasted the glory of winning it all when McDonough celebrated the state title in 2010 during his sophomore campaign.

“These guys were big, strong and fast,” said Rodgers, who started getting noticed by colleges after his sophomore season. “The practices were very intense and it was very exciting going against those guys that you see on TV and ESPN all the time. I didn’t get to go against those guys. So it was a great experience to see where I’m at and test myself before I go to college. Some of these guys I will be probably facing at the next level. I would like to thanks all my teammates, coaches and family for providing me with all the support.”

Rodgers pointed that playing versus SMAC competition and taking it up a notch versus players all over the nation was a different transition.

“When you get on the field, it’s just like playing a regular high school game,” Rodgers said. “But the atmosphere and the speed of the game were totally different. Playing versus other players in the country really was a different transition, it was a thrill for me.”

Rodgers, who has had more than 20 Division I offers from major colleges on the table, has narrowed it down to his top two: Maryland and South Carolina.

“I’ve visited South Carolina about six times and Maryland four times, but they are both great programs,” Rodgers said. “I will make my decision of where I will be going in about three weeks. The recruiting process has been busy, but I’m just sitting back and enjoying it. Football can be taken away at any moment. I’m also focusing on education.”

“His development is still a work in progress, but he has come a long way, Ethington added. “In our program, we emphasize the phrase ‘master your skill.’ He will have to make that his number one on the field priority at the next level.”

Rodgers, who arrived back in Maryland on Sunday, said that during his seven days in Florida, he went to Universal Studios, EA Sports, did community service and was in person to see the Miami Heat play the Orlando Magic in an NBA game.

Rodgers said does not like the Heat. His NBA favorite team is, the Dallas Mavericks.

Rodgers was selected for five all-star games, but NCAA rules only allowed him to play in no more than two.

So he did not represent the SMAC in the Chick-fil-A Challenge when the conference played the Prince George’s County all-stars at North Point High School on Dec. 8, like many of his McDonough teammates.

“Na’Ty has good work ethic like many of our players. However, to be a contender on the major D-I level, his work habits have to increase exponentially,” Ethington said. “He will have to be ‘mission minded’ and simply outwork anyone in his path.

“There is a story about the Spanish explorer Cortez, that when he landed in Mexico, he told his troops to, ‘Burn the Ships.’ In other words, they had no option but to move forward because turning back was not an option,” Ethington said. “That is the expectation from every player in our program that has the opportunity to play collegiate football. Go and conquer everything in your path because failure is not an option.

“If he trusts in his training, hits the books, and maximizes his potential, he will have a great college career, and there is no better feeling than that.”

ajmason@somdnews.com